UCSF Sustainability Stories


Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, December 2015


Faith and Sustainability:  Finding the Connection at UCSF Medical Center

PopeReligion, faith, spirituality and climate change:  these might not be the first words faculty, staff, students and patients think about when they arrive at UCSF Medical Center. However, in a recent conversation with Rev. Peter Yuichi Clark, Ph.D., Director of Spiritual Care Services at UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, we had the opportunity to explore how faith and sustainability are connected.

Our hearts go out to the victims of the recent violence in Paris.  The upcoming UN Climate Summit (COP21) will still be taking place in Paris, December 7-8, 2015.  See the Take Action section at the bottom of this piece for ideas on how to make your voice heard.

A Moral Imperative to Reduce Our Carbon Footprint

Leading up to the upcoming UN climate talks in Paris later this month, two important publications have recently stressed the moral imperative to take global action on climate.  In June, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, was released, creating a ripple that continues to gain momentum.  Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, explained, “Efforts to tackle climate change and other environmental issues have been driven by science, policy, economics, technology, and law. But science and policy alone are not going to solve these problems. We need these larger values–religion, art, and philosophy.”

A key message in a new report released by the University of California (UC), Bending the Curve, is that religious and community leaders are vital allies in the efforts to tackle climate change.  The one-page summary explains, “Because fundamental changes in attitudes and behaviors are critical, solutions must bring researchers and scholars together with community and religious leaders to lower barriers and create a culture of climate action to take concrete steps toward solving our shared climate crisis.” 

“Addressing these challenges, and reducing our carbon footprint, is a moral imperative,” stressed Ms. Napolitano, UC President, at a recent meeting on climate at UCSD.  It is expected that Bending the Curve will be presented to the Vatican and incorporated into the upcoming COP21 global climate summit, extending its messages beyond California.

The UCSF Connection:  In Conversation with UCSF’s Director of Spiritual Care Services

PeterIf we narrow this discussion down to a focus on UCSF, which centers on science, research, healing and medicine, Dr. Clark helps make the connection between faith and sustainability.  “In terms of its mission, at the Medical Center we have a four-word mission statement: Caring, healing, teaching, discovering. And everything that we’re doing here is supposed to link to at least one of those functions,” explained Dr. Clark.  When we speak about caring and the Earth, the word stewardship comes to mind, taking care not just of patients, but of ourselves, our community and the planet.  As the UCSF sustainability video reminds us “The planet is our responsibility.  A healthier planet means healthier patients.” 

Dr. Clark extends the word caring from medical care to the socioeconomic issues of a patient, including emotional and spiritual support.  From there, he applies a broad, interdisciplinary approach, including the environment a person is living in. He likes to explore a range of questions, such as:

  • How is this person supported by his or her environment?
  • Are there ways that we as a healthcare system can help influence the environment?
  • Are we really contributing to a healthier world in which people can live?

It is a tricky line to draw, speaking about faith without slipping into a discussion of religion.  Dr. Clark stressed, “When I think of sustainability from a faith perspective, there is a common theme across all of the world’s major faiths. It really doesn’t matter what faith I have, in the sense that all the major faiths have some kind of teaching that relates to the concept that you have to take care of this Earth, even if you believe it’s a transitory or impermanent phenomenon.”  In fact, the Pope’s encyclical has sparked action across religions—other religious leaders have gotten energized by the encyclical, including more than 400 Jewish rabbis and 20 Muslim scholars, who have responded to this moment of change.

When it comes to Dr. Clark’s job as a chaplain, he offers care to patients and helps them to draw upon their religious and spiritual resources.  He helps patients find available resources that support their faith traditions and will help them to cope with their health situation. “In terms of my own philosophy, I think of how we can be good stewards of this Earth,” said Dr. Clark.  He continued, “There are macro-level things that need to be done in order to affect the environment. But there are a lot of micro-level things. A key message in the encyclical is that we each can do our small part.”

We Each Can Do Our Part

“We can each help to change the environment in little ways, like paying attention to how you use power or how you recycle supplies. We can make a difference in small ways,” concluded Dr. Clark.  He is working in partnership with the Office of Sustainability to create a patient information card that helps to build the connection between sustainability and faith, along with some specific ways patients can practice their faith in an environmentally sustainable way. 

For the sake of Mother Nature and all living creatures, the encyclical aims to evoke contemplation, action and change. “An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation, and selfishness,” said Pope Francis. He ends with a call to action: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.”

Take Action

  • Visit the UCSF Medical Center Labyrinth in the Meditation Garden at the Mission Bay campus and take a few minutes to connect with Nature.
  • Attend the day long Climate and Health Summit on Saturday, December 5th.
  • Send your picture to Paris. Public rallies at the COP21 in Paris have been cancelled due to the recent violence, but you can still have a presence by sending a photo for the health contingent of the Virtual Climate March.
  • Sign onto one of these petitions demanding climate action from world leaders:  WHO - call to action on Climate and Health or NRDC - demand for climate action.
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Learn More

Inspired? Here are a few ways you can learn more:



Story by Green Impact:  Strategy + Communications + Engagement